I was in a tunnel falling backwards, away from a small round light rapidly shrinking at the other end. Shit… this is it… How did I let this happen? This is a mistake. No, it’s a series of regrettable events. Think quickly, Chris. Recount the lead-up to this moment. You must try to make some sense of it before it’s too late. Try and hold on to your conscious thought.
Let’s see… I visited my regular haunt, the Harp Inn on a quiet night. Only a few people I know are there to chat with, so I talked short, drank long, and became inebriated quite quickly. Then, like a fool, I continued to add more to an empty stomach before last orders were called at 2:00AM. A couple of quick shots downed for the road, a few of us shuffled off to the 24/7 diner at the opposite crossroads corner to the bar’s location. I should have gone home, but I needed a fry-up to settle my stomach. Ordering the Grand Slam Breakfast and lots of coffee, I sat with my friends from the bar, Andy, Annie, and her brother. Annie, I knew from the bar. She was petite, red-haired, and third-generation Irish – like most of the bar’s patrons. Her brother was a stranger and younger than her. I knew Andy well enough to call him a friend – even though I had met him just six months earlier. He was an ex-British Para going through the Orange County’s Sheriff’s Academy, very highly strung and oftentimes living in some form of fantasy world, allocating protective status to me and others that he liked. There were some mental health issues he carried as well from losing mates to bombs during his tours of Northern Ireland. He was a bit of a loose cannon, but I didn’t mind. I was reeling from the break-up of a disastrous relationship and feeling emotionally fragile, so I welcomed my pseudo protector who seemed to have taken a shine to me. But let’s get back to the moment, because my head is startlingly pumping squirts of crimson liquid into the air with every beat of my pulse and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to breathe.
I had been talking to a girl wearing a halter top - who had returned from the Ladies toilets. My inebriated focus caught a glimpse of a pierced navel with a ring through it.
“That must have hurt,” I blubbered out in drunk-speak.
“Not really,” was her unemotive reply as I tried to explain my logic for halting her return to her friends.
My reasoning for the conversation had its roots in a piercing of my own – in my left ear. When I had that, it felt like just a sting, but going through your bellybutton? “That must have hurt,” I repeated.
Well, my chat must have hurt the feelings of the five guys she was sat with in a booth. Come to think of it, the two other girls she was with, also didn’t look too pleased by my fleeting attention to their compatriot. They either didn’t like her talking to me or they just didn’t like my drunkenness. One male companion proceeded to voice his opinion. What he said, I don’t even recall, but I returned the exchange of words, ending with one specific word that might have caused offence.
I said, “Blah blah blah blah blah… son.” My thirty-four years of existence on this planet giving me license to talk down to the younger generation. It was probably a demeaning slight in the sober world, but obviously downright offensive in the drunken world.
Not sure why all the other sons suddenly stood up, but it seemed they were angrily protesting my retort. Andy, of course, joined in the upright posturing. He was always up for a fight. Just ask his training officer at the academy, who must have recited the wrong motivational insult to the burly, short-fused cadet - because the foul-mouthed drill instructor ended up on the ground stroking his sore chin. Goodbye Deputy Sherriff’s job, hello shotgun rider for Brinks armoured trucks. I don’t wish anyone the experience of staring into the barrel of Andy’s PTSD, even if they are in protective status.
The ceaseless soldier had recently moved into my apartment, awaiting approval to his own place. It was nice to have a drinking buddy and a distraction to my own problems. However, he arrived with baggage that I hadn’t noticed until after returning home unexpectedly one day, I found myself staring into the nose of a Colt-45 Navy Special.
“Come on, Andy,” I reasoned. “Did you not hear the fucking key turning in the lock?”
“I thought you was a burglar,” his working-class accent explained - like it was a rational justification for his action.
I immediately confiscated the gun. It wasn’t mine. I was looking after it for my stepfather who was overseas for an unspecified period. To prevent a more serious repeat of Andy’s questionable reactions, I later sold it to a gun collector. It was gathering dust anyway, and too much of a responsibility to have it in the apartment.
It’s 2:45AM back in the diner. Amid the hurled insults and woozy rhetoric, I had a brief enlightening moment of sobriety, so I attempted to diffuse the volatile atmosphere that had been rapidly building - instead of just sitting back down and passing out in my sunny side ups. The tension was hot, and the five young men appeared to be very upset at me. As drunk as I felt, I realised how futile the moment was and attempted a parlay just moments before one of them shoved me in the chest. Did I shove him back? I don’t recall but give me a minute to try and take a breath. I must concentrate on getting air into my… Fuck! There’s something wrong with one of my lungs. I can tell there’s a problem. Oh my, it’s getting worse. Just need to concentrate. Play that game I liked when I was a kid holding my breath under the bedsheets at night, pretending to be underwater. Just let out slow puffs of air before slowly inhaling again. Yes, that worked. I can do that, until help arrives. But make it quick, please. There’s blood everywhere.
I can’t recall who kicked off the violent melee, but I know that someone picked me up from behind and slammed me onto a table, causing me to fall to the floor. As I got back to my feet, another individual cold-cocked me with a punch to my head, so I fell again. Like Stanley Kubrick’s apes in the 2001 – A Space Odyssey’s dawn of man movie scene, I instinctively rose onto two feet, hoping it would be safer. However, as I straightened up, the same person drew back his foot and kicked me in my head, connecting with the right side of my temple. Call a plumber, my drunken thought logic shouted, I have a broken faucet. It was the colour of red wine and spurting like a pressurised champagne fountain. I’m not going to stand up again to be a punching bag. Stem that flow, I told myself. Placing the palm of my right hand to my temple, I propped myself onto my elbows, hypnotically watching the carpet ravenously absorb my life’s blood. Then, a thudding sound winded me, as another kick connected with my right-side rib cage. There was nothing I could do but shrink into a ball to protect my body and head. I think I counted fifteen methodical blows to my chest, before brave little Annie threw herself onto me, creating a buffer zone. If not for her, this tunnel vision would be pitch black with no spark of a light to remind me that life is at the end of it.
No sooner had the punishment to my torso stopped, when someone picked me up and carried me to an adjoining room, laying me face up on a booth bench seat. A young man began to apply the only dressing he could find. Initially, the hard hand towels from the men’s toilet were light brown in their hue and course in their feel. They quickly transformed into red soaked, soft, Papier Mache scattered across my chest.
“Are you a paramedic?” I whispered in a painful short breath.
“Yes,” he replied. “I was on my way home and stopped for a coffee.”
That’s how I interpreted it, anyway.
“I can’t breathe,” I stated, trying not to panic.
“Just slowly take in as much air as you can,” he calmly explained. “I’ve been through this before.”
The soothing attitude of the paramedic helped me focus again. It didn’t last long. Andy had broken free from being restrained by the pierced bellybutton’s friends and rushed headlong over to me. Seeing my face covered in blood seemed to trigger a PTSD flashback in his head, so he concerningly began to call for a medic, while continuing to crowd my space. Interrupting my concentration, I exhaled a Get off of me demand, then shoved him away with my feet, and that’s when the freefall started. I had lost the focused breathing game, allowing the lack of oxygen to start playing games with my mind. A floating sensation enveloped me, causing a feeling of slowly falling backwards in the air. The room started to darken all around me – a faint glow from the ceiling light getting smaller and further away from view. I don’t feel any emotion. Oh my! Is this what I think it is…?
“Chris…! Chris! That’s your name, right?”
I was back in the room. The dream-like sensation vanished when the voice demanded my attention.
“Don’t worry,” the female voice added. “I’m here. I’ll stay with you. You’re going to be okay.”
I felt my hand being held in a tight but gentle caress, like a bird’s feathery wings hugging me. My wide-open eyes convinced me of a halo forming around her silhouetted head.
“Are you an angel?” I semi-consciously asked the kind, smiling face – even though I’m not religious. But… people do talk about guardian angels here on Earth. She could be one, right?
“I’ll stay here with you. An ambulance is on its way… I’ll stay with you… Talk to me…”
“Yes, my guardian angel. Fly me to heaven.”
A state of delirium had taken hold of my mental faculties. I had returned from death’s door, rescued at the precipice of nothingness, and yanked back into somethingness. I was going to grasp reality with every fibre of my being – if I could only just control my breathing.
An inherent sense of survival told me that talking to someone, anyone, would keep me focused on the here and now - as the paramedics from the ambulance put me on the gurney to wheel me into their hospital on wheels.
“Goodbye, Angel,” my farewell whispered through exasperated breath, as she loosened her caring hold on me. “I don’t know your name, but I will never forget you. Goodbye…!”
The stars’ bright display in the sky held my attention while the ER staff took over and wheeled me into the emergency room of Hoag hospital in Newport Beach.
“Hello Moon, goodbye Moon, hello nurse, hello doctor. I still can’t breathe very well. I just met an angel… What is in this drip attached to my arm? It’s good stuff, whatever it is.”
An examination of my head wound is inconclusive. The doctor on duty says there’s so much blood, it looks like my head is split open from front to back.
“Great,” was my flippant response. “That’s going to alter the hairline.”
I don’t know why I’m acting so sprightly. I’m still needing to play the breathing game slow and light. The oxygen mask is helping, and the doctor is a friendly and chatty fellow – even though I must have disturbed his slumber, because it doesn’t look too busy in here.
Delicately feeling around the back of my head with my fingers, I estimate at least two to three inches of coagulated blood is stuck to the gurney. The good doctor says that he’s checked the x-rays, and the cut on my head is only three centimetres long; however, I have two broken ribs. One has floated into my chest cavity and pierced my right lung. That explains the breathing problem and the pain. My chest cavity is filling with air every time I breathe, so will need rectifying – the doctor noted. Not sure what that means; however, it looks like I’m getting admitted upstairs. The surgeon kindly lent me a handheld mirror so I could watch him stitch my head wound. What an artist he is. Stitches inside and outside the wound have left a small crease in my forehead. Hardly noticeable – if not for the black thread poking out. If Paris fashion week ever needed a talented seamstress, I’d recommend him for the job. He really is that good. Ha! I think the painkillers have kicked in. A warm and soft sensation is enveloping my face. Oh, it’s due to a nurse washing some of the blood from my trauma-affected head. An honest mistake, but it feels comforting.
“Don’t forget behind my ears,” I quipped as she scraped the blood jelly off the gurney. Talking is beginning to tire me out, so I’ll listen to what the doctor is explaining and just slightly nod my head in my medicated state.
After four hours in ER, I have a large room to myself on the sixth floor overlooking Newport Marina. Is this a hospital or a hotel? The large window allows the first light of day to stream into my West-facing room, as night-time disappears over the Pacific Ocean! What a view!
The adrenalin, long-ago worn off, has been replaced by a medication weighing down my eyelids. As I quickly drift into unconsciousness, I silently hope that I will wake again.
“Watch over me, Angel,” I whispered before sleep overpowered me…
Later that morning. My new doctor explained that he would need to drill a hole in the side of my chest to let the trapped air escape, allowing my lung to once again expand. He could have prepared me for the excruciating pain of cutting through my muscle and inserting that long tube deep into my chest. I was gripping my bed’s metal arm rails so tightly, that I almost left finger indents in them.
Hooked up to a device that allowed air to escape my chest cavity - without sucking any back in, I laid there for another three days. On the fourth day, my right lung had repaired itself, so the doctor decided to clip the tube to see if I could breathe normally. It didn’t work. My lung collapsed again, causing fluid to build up inside it. On the fourth night, I ran a 104-degree Fahrenheit fever. Thinking I would not make it through the night, I called as many people - as I could remember their phone numbers - to say goodbye. Dosed with Tylenol to combat the fever, I was in the middle of one conversation, while watching, The Wrath of Kahn, Star Trek movie - the scene where Kahn sticks a menacing bug into Chekhov’s ear.
“That must have hurt,” I reflectively recollected the words of several nights prior.
“I’ll call you back,” I abruptly said, ending the call.
My focus glued to the TV, ignored my own suffering, while I watched Chekov contorting in agonising pain. Followed by a John Travolta classic, my evening was captivating. By morning, the Saturday night fever was gone, and I was ordering vanilla ice cream for my four bar buddies, whose visit presented the question, “Do you want us to take care of them for you?”
It was at that moment; I realised a previous summation of these four well-meaning men had been an accurate profile of them. Not mentioning names, the group consisted of two English brothers of Kray Twins mannerisms and temperament, a very tall ex-South African soldier who had recently moved to Southern California, and a Belfast acquaintance, who I always suspected was on the run from a past life across the pond. I was forced to reassess that relationship after he accompanied me on a road trip to see an old writer friend of mine in Santa Cruz. On the return leg - as I drove us home on a dark desert highway, it wasn’t the Eagles’ Hotel California that filled the airwaves, it was Chris Isaac’s Wicked Game repeatedly playing through the Irishman’s CD player. If that wasn’t surreal enough, a pistol calmly retrieved from his glove box was violently discharged through his open window, until empty. I didn’t question his reason. I just concentrated on breathing - counting down the miles left to get home. It took decades before I disassociated that song with that strange night.
I later cut off contact with him after discovering he had recorded my phone calls when temporarily lodging with him and his girlfriend. Maybe I had insulted him by graciously turning down the bedside offer of retribution, or maybe he was just an unhinged thug. All I knew at the time was that the well-intentioned reprisal would no doubt cause unwanted legal consequences for me. I just wanted a peaceful life without violence, without stress, and without trauma.
Twenty-four hours after declining the opportunity for revenge, I was discharged from the hospital’s wonderful caring staff and sent right back into the world of the living.
It’s been a colourful journey since then. My present owes a lot to that moment of shocking past. Without “That must have hurt” being voiced, I may not have ended up a citizen of paradise, nor would I have met the love of my life. As painful and upsetting as it was, I grew to realise that it was a necessary port of call on my voyage to now…
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Wow, Chris, what a tale - and extremely well-conveyed. Funny enough, this was just about the week before I joined Reedsy, so I never would have seen this otherwise, and I appreciate you linking it to me! I really enjoyed (ok, perhaps not the right word...) reading it! - my head is startlingly pumping squirts of crimson liquid into the air with every beat of my pulse - this was vivid and really grabbed me - I found myself staring into the nose of a Colt-45 Navy Special. - good lord! - holding my breath under the bedsheets at night, preten...
Wendy, Many thanks for your great feedback. That episode was 31 years ago. It changed my direction in life (for the good). Also, made me more selective of who I consider a friend. So glad you liked my quips.
Wow! What a life turning event. I've been jumped and bloodied up before, but never that bad. You were lucky good samaritans were there to help. I had to quit hanging out and drinking with people I didn't know, shit goes sideways at three in the morning when the keg runs dry.
Yes, the sober me would have avoided the situation. Thanks for reading my story, Kevin.
I found this more intriguing than I originally thought it'd be in the beginning :) I'm usually more drawn to fiction rather than non-fiction. The fact that it's a true story makes it even more intriguing though. This sentence made me laugh, "Not sure why all the other sons suddenly stood up, but it seemed they were angrily protesting my retort." Haha. It was great. And mentioning that you found the love of your life because of the experience is so sweet! It wouldn't happen to be the "angel" lady that was with you before you were put int...
Jerusalem, Thank you for your kind comments. This incident took place in 1991, but this is the first time I've written anything about it. I am truly lucky to have met two angels in my life. The first one helped me through a traumatic moment - then vanished without the opportunity for me to thank her. The second, I met 21 years ago, and her halo still shines brightly.
Your welcome! Thank you for sharing your story :) That is so beautiful! Blessed indeed.
Interesting, a true story? Must have been a bit of a shock to be in the hospital having your lungs drained,etc.. This all reminds me of the people I hung out with (sans the gun violence) when I was in my early 20s until I decided random chaos and living on the edge just wasn't worth it.
Yes, I hear you, and yes, it’s all true. It was 31 years ago, but still fresh (ahem) in my mind. Thanks for reading and commenting on it, Scott.